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“Joe Strummer – Tribute Concert: Cast a Long Shadow”: A loving, heartfelt tribute to the co-founder of the Clash
Joe Strummer – Tribute Concert: Cast a Long Shadow — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — is a loving, heartfelt tribute to the co-founder of the Clash, a man who died at 50, just as he seemed to be getting his second wind as a performer and songwriter. Hearing the songs makes one realize how badly Joe Strummer is missed.
Organized to raise money for Strummerville, a charity set up by Strummer’s widow Lucinda, their daughters, and English artist Damien Hirst, the event took place at Los Angeles’ Key Club in December, 2007.
Five years had passed since Strummer’s death from an unknown congenital heart ailment, and the performers onstage – some who were part of Strummer’s post-Clash lineups – look emotional, as if still holding onto his memory.
The program begins leisurely. After some random quotes from people about how much they loved Joe, we learn a bit about Strummerville (the charity’s name has since been changed to “The Joe Strummer Foundation”), a group that helps “underprivileged kids get into music.”
Chris Salewicz, who wrote the excellent Redemption Song: the Ballad of Joe Strummer, spoke glowingly of the charity, which supports aspiring musicians and promotes new music.
He notes at the beginning of the show, “It’s in keeping with the philanthropic tradition of Joe Strummer.”
A senior writer at the New Musical Express during the Clash’s heyday, Salewicz is all over the tribute concert. He introduces the performers, he reads passages from Redemption Song, calls Strummer a “warrior poet,” and compares him to no less than Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bob Marley.
At the height of his Strummer-induced fervor, Salewicz seemed on the verge of forcing the gathering to drink a toast in Strummer’s memory.
The crowd, which appears too young to have experienced the Clash firsthand, seems unmoved by Salewicz, and can be heard shouting over him; he’s a fine writer, but should’ve known better then to read to an audience at an LA rock club.
He comes off as a bit of a gadfly, which is unfair to a journalist of his ilk who has always championed this sort of music.
Up first was Hellride, a powerful band with Mike Watt on bass and vocals. They stomp through “1977,” “Hate and War,” and “Career Opportunities,” all excellent choices from the Clash’s early days.
For all of Hellride’s aggression, however, the sound generated by their fresh new Fender guitars is too crisp; the band lacks the earsplitting menace of the early Clash. But kudos to them.
Watt started Hellride as a Stooges’ tribute band; tackling The Clash certainly required a different set of musical muscles.
David J, once of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, follows with a mellow, cello backed “Death is a Star” from Combat Rock. It’s a commendable interpretation, but it doesn’t ignite. His singing seems to evaporate over the audience like a soap bubble.
Zander Schloss and the Wilderness Years, a 15-piece ensemble (including Flea on trumpet, working out his Chet Baker fixation) performs six songs, mostly from Strummer’s post-Clash era.
The most devoted of Strummer followers might enjoy this part of the show best, as we hear deep cuts from the Walker soundtrack, and Earthquake Weather. This part of the show reminds us that Strummer was a rover when it came to his musical influences.
At times, the Wilderness Years can astonish with their versatility. They can get into a groove reminiscent of “Montego Bay” by Bobby Bloom, or they can go rootsy, with harmonicas, fiddles, and washboards, but as musical and far reaching as this sprawling band may be, you may start wishing for more Clash, less wilderness.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the problem, because there’s no shortage of talent on the Key Club stage. Even Schloss’ singing voice is similar to Strummer’s, though that may be part of what’s wrong; there may be too much reverence in these performances.
When you think of the artists who covered Bob Dylan’s songs, for instance, it was the groups that recreated the songs in their own style that succeeded.
Onstage at the Key Club, it’s the performers who don’t duplicate the Strummer sound are the most memorable.
La Plebe, a Latino American punk outfit from San Francisco, comes closest to hitting Strummer’s mix of melancholy and energy. They max out on beautiful versions of “Revolution Rock,” “Washington Bullets,” and “Rudie Can’t Fail.”
La Plebe was still a young band at the time of Cast a Long Shadow, and having just released their first full-length album, ¡Hasta La Muerte!, probably boosted their inspired showing. They were known for playing their guts out, and on this night they played like they wanted to kill.
(We wish they could’ve knocked out a version of “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” arguably Strummer’s greatest moment, but that might be asking for too much.)
Perhaps the most moving performance of the show is the most unlikely. Melodee Fernandez, an experienced but unheralded Mexican opera singer (who currently gives vocal lessons at the Casa 0101 Theater in L.A.), appears onstage to sing “Spanish Bombs,” the old chestnut from London Calling.
With Schloss accompanying her on acoustic guitar, and a red rose in her hair, Fernandez sings in Spanish, revealing many new layers to the song. The way she stretches her voice around the melody and makes it soar is evidence that Strummer (and collaborator Mick Jones) were writing majestic, highly emotional pieces.
That it took an opera singer like Fernandez to reveal this, and not a bunch of guitar slamming punks, says a lot.
Whether or not you’ll love this concert may depend on how you feel about “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and the prospect of hearing it performed as the show’s finale by Love and Rockets.
It’s a reasonably good way to end the event – after all, it was the Clash’s biggest hit, and helped Combat Rock go double platinum. Jones once said, “It was just a good rockin’ song, our attempt at writing a classic … When we were just playing, that was the kind of thing we used to like to play.”
Indeed, the song became a classic of sorts, one of the rarities from the era that still sounds strong today. The irony is that “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” wasn’t a Strummer song.
True, Strummer provided background vocals (with Joe Ely), but Jones was on the lead vocal, and the song was the sort of hook-laden exercise in which Jones specialized. (Hearing it played here made us think of Lennon saying that he hated hearing “Yesterday” in elevators.)
By the time the fans — and what seems like one hundred musicians — are climbing onto the stage to sing along with Love and Rockets, it’s easy to succumb to the celebration.
This, one imagines, is how punk rock will sound in another 10 years when some entrepreneur decides to organize a “punk rock pleasure cruise” for senior citizens, with Billy Idol as your ship’s captain. But we digress…
Several things come to mind while watching Cast a Long Shadow. In short, the jury is still out as to how the punk era has aged. As Schloss sings in “Gangsterville”: “The revolution came, the revolution went.”
That’s how it seems with Strummer and The Clash: they came and went. Removed from the time in which they were first heard, the songs lack bite. It’s like hearing Country Joe and The Fish sing “I Feel Like I’m Fixing-to-Die” now; it doesn’t quite rattle the bushes the way it did during the Vietnam years.
Then, like a signal flare in the middle of a night sky, there’s a small revelation when the concert ends. As the credits roll, we hear Strummer’s recording of “Arms Aloft” from Streetcore, and then it’s clear what the show was missing: Joe Strummer! His voice, his presence, his perspiration, his craggy smile, his hopefulness, his fearlessness, his defiance.
Hearing his careworn voice makes you wonder what he’d be doing now. He’d be 65 years old this summer. What sort of songs would he write in the era of Donald Trump? Would Strummer be part of a new revolution? Or would he leave the fighting to a bunch of younger desperadoes?